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What If?

The power of the word 'IF'

by Helen Bryant (revised, originally published in 2010)

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider the power of the tiny word, ‘if’.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a copy of the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. It is available at:

    You may wish to pre-arrange for several students to read this poem.


  1. ‘If’ is a tiny word, yet its meaning is huge. How many times have we thought, ‘What if?’ or, ‘If only I’d . . . ?’

    ‘If’ is often used to indicate that we could have taken a completely different path, often pointing to things that we wish we’d done.

    - ‘What if I had gone to that play?’
    - ‘What if I had read those instructions properly?’
    - ‘What if I had said yes?’

  2. The word ‘if’ can also indicate the difference between accepting a situation and knowing that we could have done better. We often say things like: 

    - ‘If only I’d done x, y or z.’
    - ‘If only I’d revised more.’
    - ‘If only I’d made more of an effort.’
    - ‘If only I hadn’t said (or done) that.’

    Ask the students to think of a time when they have used the term ‘if only’, and then think about how that made them feel.

  3. Sometimes, the word ‘if’ can be used in the half-humorous, half-poignant exclamation, ‘As if!’ In this context, it denotes that whatever is being talked about, although it is desirable, is impossible or very unlikely. It is a shorter way of saying, ‘As if that were remotely possible!’ or, ‘Don’t they just wish!’ or simply, ‘Yeah, right!’ . . . ‘That boy asked me out on a date. As if!’

  4. In the film Letters to Juliet, someone reads out a letter written to them about a past relationship. It states, ‘What and if are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side by side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: what . . . if? What, if? What if . . . ? I don’t know how your story ended, but if what you felt then was true love, then it’s never too late. If it was true then, why wouldn’t it be true now? You need only the courage to follow your heart.

  5. Read out ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, or ask some students to do so.

    Point out that this poem has been voted the nation’s favourite poem by BBC television viewers several times, most recently in 2009.

  6. Kipling’s poem talks about the many things that we find difficult to do. It is meant to give instruction. Kipling wrote the poem to his young son, John, to whom he was devoted. Sadly, John was later killed in the First World War.

    Maybe Kipling was also thinking about himself and trying to see where he had achieved these suggestions.

  7. There are clear challenges that are set for us in this poem, whatever our age. There is an element of uncertainty and also of ‘what if?’ If we can do all of these things, we will achieve true greatness, not only in society, but also within ourselves, and find self-acceptance.

  8. When we say ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, it is often after we have made mistakes that could have been avoided if we had been more careful. There are two lines in Kipling’s poem that may be able to help us avoid some of these regrets:

    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two imposters just the same;

  9. Triumph and Disaster often seek to make us people that we are not. When we are triumphant, we often become over-confident; when we see disaster, we often blame ourselves and dwell too much on our failures.
    These two lines are about not being swayed by Triumph or Disaster; they are about seeing our place between those two. They also help us to understand that asking ‘what if?’ is sometimes a useless way to consider what we have done.

Time for reflection

There is a Church of England prayer that includes the words, ‘Help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be.’

Maybe it should add, ‘and help us to get rid of regret and the “what ifs”’.

Maybe today we should look at the tiny word ‘if’ and consider its basic meaning. Its function in a sentence is to indicate that a particular thing can or will happen only after something else happens or becomes true. However, we also need to consider that we don’t need to waste our lives living in regret. We need to realize that past mistakes can be rectified and put behind us, and that we can look to the future with hope and excitement.


You may wish to play the song ‘Turn back time’ by Aqua, in which case you will also need the means to do so. A version of it is available at: (4.17 minutes long)

Publication date: October 2018   (Vol.20 No.10)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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